I have had every honor to which man could aspire. There is no place on the whole earth except here in America where all sons of man have this chance in life…Here alone is human dignity not a dream, but an accomplishment. Herbert Hoover
Herbert Hoover was a brilliant manager, a wizard of logistics, and an extraordinarily effective humanitarian. How come we remember him as a failure?
We have enjoyed our visits to many of the presidential library’s over the years. We went to West Branch, Iowa to visit the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum.
The setting of the Library is so peaceful and nice, it contains his small birthplace and his fathers blacksmith shop. The school he first attended, he was a Quaker, was the old Friends Meetinghouse. The newer Friends Meetinghouse was also on the grounds. President Hoover was very much involved in the planning of the Library and had wanted the view from the back porch of his birthplace to have an unobstructed view of his gravesite.
Since American History, as taught in our schools, is so condensed, we remember Hoover as the president when the US went into the Great Depression. Many seem to blame him for it, even though he was only president for 9 months before it happened. So we want to tell the story about Herbert Hoover, not just as a president but as a world wide humanitarian that directly effected so many lives.
This was the world Herbert Hoover was born into
Robert Garden wrote in the “Rise and Fall of American Growth” 2016, about the great gains between 1870 and 1920. He said: “Most aspects of life in 1870 (except for the rich) were dark, dangerous and involved backbreaking work. People’s homes were dark and poorly heated. They were smoky from candles and oil lamps.” He went on to say “But the biggest inconvenience was the lack of running water. Every drop of water for laundry, cooking, and inside chamber pots had to be hauled in by the housewife, and wastewater hauled out.”
Hoover’s early years and education
Born in West Branch, Ohio in 1874 as the second child, an older brother and eventually a younger sister to a Quaker couple, he was the son of Jesse Hoover, a blacksmith, and Hulda Minthorn Hoover, a seamstress and recorded minister in the Society of Friends (Quakers). He lost his father at 6 and his mother at 9 years old. The children were split up with various parts of the family. At 11, Hoover took the train to Oregon to live with his mother’s brother. He lived with the Minthorns for six years; at the age of 14 he left school to work as a clerk in his uncle’s real estate business.
Three years later he decided he was interested in geology and took the exams to attend the inaugural class of Stamford University in 1891, He found the happiness at Stanford that had eluded him before. He majored in geology and enjoyed being mentored by John Casper Branner, the discoverer of bauxite in Arkansas and professor at Stanford.. He completed Stanford in 1895 where he had become very active in student government and managed both the baseball and football programs.. He met his future wife Lou Henry in his senior year.
Mining career and where his financial success was gained
Because of the financial Panic of 1893 Hoover had a hard time finding employment. He worked in the gold mines of Nevada City as a “mudracker” for $2.00 per day. The story was that he looked so young, at 21, he grew a beard and purchased a tweed suit for an interview with a London based mining company, getting the job, he went to Western Australia to run gold mines for Bewick, Moreing & Co. He discovered a huge vein of gold that made a fortune for the mining company. He returned to the US briefly to marry his Stamford sweetheart Lou Henry.
The firm then sent him to China to manage their mining operations. The Hoovers lived in China from April 1899 until August 1900. Hoover’s work in China revolved around the huge Kaiping Mines. Hoover worked as chief engineer for the Chinese Bureau of Mines, and as general manager for the Chinese Engineering and Mining Corporation. He was made a partner in Bewick, Moreing & Co. on December 18, 1901 and assumed responsibility for various Australian operations and investments. He went on over the next two decades to become a multi-millionaire investing and fixing badly run mines around the world. He became known as the “Doctor of sick mines”
Herbert Hoover’s Humanitarian efforts during and after World War One
After he became a successful mining engineer with a global perspective. He built an international reputation as a humanitarian by leading international relief efforts in Belgium during World War I, 1914-1917. His experience as an orphan alway affected his desire to help those in need.
When we visited the library, the National Parks employee told us about an older couple from Belgium, that told him how highly Hoover is still viewed in their country for what he had done during World War One.
What gave him renown enough to make him a plausible Presidential candidate was his self-appointment as the manager of an international effort to get food into Belgium after it had fallen to the Germans during the First World War. His aim, Whyte writes, was “to provide almost the entire food supply for a nation of 7.5 million people, indefinitely.” This required getting food mostly from the United States, collecting it in London, and then shipping it across the English Channel and into territory controlled by a country with which Britain was at war—all with not much more than a wisp of an official position. Whatever qualities had made Hoover successful as an operator of mines in remote areas also made him successful at delivering relief under emergency conditions. He borrowed money to buy food before he had succeeded in getting government assistance. He persuaded George Bernard Shaw, Thomas Hardy, and other leading authors to publish statements in support of his efforts. He negotiated with food brokers and shipping companies. At a time when the world adored people who had spectacular organizational skills, here was somebody using them not to build a factory or administer an empire but for purely humanitarian purposes. Hoover was a logistical saint.
New Yorker Magazine, Oct. 23, 2017. Hating on Herbert Hoover by Nicholas Lemann
When the U.S. entered the war in 1917 he became “food czar” as head of the U.S. Food Administration in charge of much of the nation’s food supply and a massive advertising campaign to help consumers adjust and save. He worked well with President Woodrow Wilson and in his cabinet, gained a large national audience.
Secretary of Commerce under Warren G. Harding
The Great Mississippi Flood
The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 broke the banks and levees of the lower Mississippi River in early 1927, resulting in flooding of millions of acres and leaving 1.5 million people displaced from their homes. Although such a disaster did not fall under the duties of the Commerce Department, the governors of six states along the Mississippi specifically asked for Herbert Hoover in the emergency. President Coolidge appointed Hoover to coordinate the response to the flood. Hoover personally crisscrossed the Mississippi Valley, giving speeches and coordinating the response. He established over one hundred tent cities and a fleet of more than six hundred vessels, and raised $17 million. In large part due to his leadership during the flood crisis, by 1928, Hoover had begun to overshadow President Coolidge himself. Herbert Hoover by William E. Leuchtenburg (2009)
As early as 1923, Hoover was warning publicly that, sooner or later, the booming economy of the nineteen-twenties was going to go bust. He was particularly focussed on the New York banks’ dangerous practice of lending money to investors so that they could buy stocks “on margin,” (at that time you could borrow 90% against your stock) which overheated the markets with speculation and generated white-knuckle risk for the borrowers and the banks alike.
When President Coolidge decided not to run for another term, Herbert Hoover was nominated as the Republican candidate in 1928. He ran against New York governor Alfred E. Smith and won in a landslide. During Hoover’s campaign, he famously said, “We in America today are nearer to the final triumph over poverty than ever before in the history of any land,” but less than a year later the stock market crash of 1929 struck, and the worst economic downturn in American history was upon Hoover’s administration.
Hoover’s plan to attack the Great Depression had as its backbone tax cuts and public works projects: keep more money in people’s pockets, and keep people working. He also contacted business leaders and urged them not to cut wages or lay off workers, and in 1932 he backed the establishment of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, a lending institution intended to help banks and industries in their recovery efforts. Unfortunately, none of these approaches helped the floundering economy, and Hoover watched helplessly while businesses closed their doors and Americans sank into poverty. He also made a critical mistake in signing into law the Smoot-Hawley Act, which raised taxes on imports and prompted foreign nations to turn their backs on American-made goods when the country desperately needed sales.
When the election of 1932 came around, Hoover blamed the depression on factors beyond his control, but the public either didn’t care or wasn’t buying it, and he was trounced by Franklin Roosevelt. Hoover continued to try and influence politics over the next two election cycles, but his landslide defeat caused the republican party to pick other candidates. Being opposed to much that Franklin Roosevelt was doing as a part of the New Deal left Hoover out of participating in any government activities through the Roosevelt presidency.
Upon leaving office, Hoover was the only living ex-president for nearly 20 years, until Harry Truman left office in 1953. The Hoovers went first to New York City, where they stayed for a while in the Waldorf Astoria hotel. Later they returned to California to their Stanford residence. Hoover enjoyed returning to the men’s clubs that he had long been involved with, including the Bohemian Club, the Pacific-Union Club, and the University Club in San Francisco. Hoover and his wife lived in Palo Alto until her death in 1944, at which point Hoover began to live permanently at the Waldorf Astoria.
In 1947 President Truman appointed Hoover to a commission, which elected him chairman, to reorganize the Executive Departments. He was appointed chairman of a similar commission by President Eisenhower in 1953. Many economies resulted from both commissions’ recommendations. Over the years, Hoover wrote many articles and books, one of which he was working on when he died at 90 in New York City on October 20, 1964.
We wrote lot of history in this post, but then again, that was the point of visiting the Herbert Hoover Library and Museum. We gained a great appreciation for what a humanitarian he was and how good a person he was to others. So much was credited to his Quaker beginnings and the fact he grew up as an orphan.
A must visit if you have the pleasure of visiting Iowa.